Recognizing Radicalization

23 Jun 2016
Category: In The News

By: Richard Schoeberl

As we continue to face the challenges associated with active shooter situations, particularly when that action is driven by Islamic extremism, it is clear that new strategies need to be developed to warn society about people who have become radicalized and now pose a danger. Despite global efforts to eradicate the Islamic State from their iron grip in the Middle East, the terror organization has been successful in carrying out attacks around the globe, most recently the tragic events in Orlando, Florida. Following the attacks in Orlando, Islamic State supporters posted threatening messages on Twitter promising additional attacks in the United States. CIA Director John Brennan told a senate panel that the military strategy in Syria and other parts of the region have prompted the Islamic State and its supporters to focus on more terror attacks outside their stronghold and around the world.

As the Islamic State looks for means to enter the United States through traditional travel methods, southwest border smuggling routes, or refugee status, we still must be concerned with the marketing methods and propaganda that is radicalizing those over the internet that recently prompted the recent attacks in Chattanooga TN, San Bernardino, CA and Orlando, FL. Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, watched the Islamic State’s propaganda online and pledged his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State leader. There is no doubt that social media has revolutionized terrorism through its ability to radicalize those individuals who were previously unreachable across the globe.

Radicalization is not solely a law enforcement issue, as police can only do so much to protect the vulnerable from violent extremism. Law enforcement cannot be expected to work alone any longer in addressing this threat; they simply cannot watch all people all of the time. It is important for society to recognize and report signs of radicalization. Although religion plays a marginal role in the radicalization process, a majority of the individuals are driven by political or social change, grievances, personal dissatisfactions, and the sense of adventure – which is clearly what the Islamic State stands to exploit. These individuals adopt extreme social, religious, and political viewpoints thus rejecting contemporary ideas. There are other contributing factors involved in the radicalization process such as life-altering events, social networks, poverty, unemployment, and charismatic clerics – such as Anwar al-Awlaki. There is no “simple” or “easy” explanation behind radicalization, as different people follow different paths to get there.

Safety and security in the United States is no longer a guarantee and the assurance lies in the “everyday American” being able to recognize when a person shows signs of radicalization. Terrorism awareness has never been more important than it is present day. We are at a stage that law enforcement must work with society to prevent future acts. Although the radicalization phases can be subtle, it is difficult for law enforcement to recognize this transformation as they typically are not close to the individual and able to observe the transformation process. Those who live with the individual, work with the individual, or associate with the individual are better suited to recognize the signs linked with the radicalization process. In the San Bernardino case, neighbors and friends knew something was wrong in advance but did not alert authorities. In Chattanooga, Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez exhibited several signs of radicalization but family and friends said nothing as they didn’t see him as being violent. Orlando shooter Omar Mateen had been investigated before and in fact bragged of common friends with the Boston Marathon bombers and made statements to co-workers that suggested he had radical and violent intentions.

The following behavior changes and certain traits can be attributed to the radicalization process and are a strong indication that an individual is gravitating towards extremist beliefs and becoming radicalized:

  • Gradual or immediate abandonment of family, friends, and unexplained isolation
  • Rejection of their life before they were radicalized and all those associated with that way of life
  • Intolerance towards others who do not share their same viewpoints
  • The abandonment of hobbies, like sports or organized activities
  • Increased online viewing and research of violent jihadist and anti-government websites
  • Employed surveillance on targets of interests and research on methods to avoid detection
  • Adoration and sharing of online violent extremist acts
  • Increased pursuit of paramilitary training
  • Abrupt and unexplained travel to known terror regions or conflict zones
  • Religious enlightenment, anyone who does not share the same religious views and interpretations is of less worth
  • Rejection of other Muslim groups who may renounce violence
  • Refusal to debate on issues, whether religious or societal, that may conflict with their own
  • They develop obsessive patterns of behavior for martyrdom and establishment of a caliphate
  • Expressed hatred for the government, law enforcement or military

The general public needs to take accountability. Efforts must be made to urge the public to come forward with information about a terror suspect because they play a large role in identifying the indicators to radicalization. We cannot reach everybody, but through community policing efforts, public and private partnerships in the security industry, and learning the signs that extremists exhibit while they are still in a pre-radicalization phase, society will have a chance at mitigating the threat posed by extremists – whether lone wolf or otherwise.

If you would like to discuss your specific security program, emergency procedures, or training needs, please contact your local Whelan Security branch office or our Corporate Support Center at 1-888-4WHELAN.  

For additional information on recognizing radicalization, countering terrorism, emergency preparedness, and reporting suspicious activity, please refer to the following resources: 


Richard Schoeberl, a PhD candidate in Criminology and Terrorism, has over 20 years of security and law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served at a variety of positions throughout his career ranging from supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to acting unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before his managerial duties at these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, international terrorism, terrorist financing, cyberterrorism, and organized drugs. He also was assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous articles on terrorism and security.  He is currently the General Manager for Whelan Security’s operations in Tennessee and Mississippi.